If you start a film festival (this one was Las Palmas in 2009) – not at the Opening Night Gala, but the very first screening that afternoon – with Philippe Grandrieux’s Un lac, you hardly need watch anything else; you may as well go home after that. But, strangely – the way these things happen at festivals – the film set a tone, or a theme, that captured many subsequent screenings in its net: the archetypal situation of the whole event became the too-close relations of a family (not necessarily a traumatised or Gothic family, it could even be a Happy Family) – parent-child, or sibling intimacy – interrupted and reorganised by an incoming stranger.
Un lac is not a violent film the way Grandrieux’s previous features, Sombre (1998) and La Vie Nouvelle (2002), were: no serial rape, prostitution or socially-sanctioned abuse. The filmmaker announced, in Zagreb at the end of 2007, that he was through with the Gothic themes of malign evil and the perverse: henceforth, his work would only be about joy. (Let’s see if he sticks to that promise in future!) Un lac is a sublime film about, not uncomplicated joy exactly, but the exquisite pain of a transition: the daughter (Natalie Rehorova) must leave her home, the sister must leave her brother, and she must do so in the arms of her newfound lover. The plot of the piece amounts to not much more than that, with this almost Hitchcockian ethical twist or transference: the stranger (Alexei Solonchev), whom the brother (Dmitry Kubasov) at first seems disposed to hate with all his might, actually saves the latter’s life after he suffers an epileptic fit. So, a debt of trust and love intervenes, easing the way to the affective handover.
The power of Un lac comes from the way it pictures and figures this womb or cocoon of the primal family. There is not the slightest realistic detail in the film on the level of its narrative verisimilitude: here is a family in a cabin in the snow, completely cut off from the entire world, from time and history. The young man chops and fells trees: that’s it for a vocation, employment, money, whatever. Issues of language, regionality, cultural specificity: forget ‘em. Realism questions (when, where, how come?) count for nothing here; the movie compels us to accept its extraordinary abstraction and subtraction from the ordinary world.
What we see is, on the one hand, brute nature (the cold, the ice, the mountains, the barely-glimpsed lake of the valley, the sound of the wind gently shaking the giant trees) and, on the other hand, the sensual embodiment of human drives and desires: has any film started so powerfully as this one does, with the boy’s chopping of a tree (apparently the post-sync, sonic composite of twenty different noises)? That is, in a sense, Un lac’s true subject: the channelling of desire, the taming of the drives. From the indistinctness of the family womb – in an extraordinarily brave artistic gesture, Grandrieux films the home interior with almost no discernible detail of rooms, contours, spaces, volumes, except for a dining table here or a bed there in the darkness – to the forging of a necessary (and necessarily sexual) relation to the Other.
There is no obvious sign of a radical political agenda here – of the kind that slightly overbalanced the presentation of Eastern Europe as a setting in La Vie Nouvelle, determining a large part of what was written about it in its defence – but Un lac is stronger for its absence. The film marks an extraordinary purification of Grandrieux’s art, and a better coming-to-account with the impulse to tell a story, which is arrived at here minimally and mythically – with some strikingly classical moments, such as the rhyming movement of the camera, out on the water, into and out of the shore from which boats arrive and depart (such a central pinpoint spot in this fable!). Reminiscent again of Grandrieux in Zagreb, hearing (unforgettably) him explain the fold of the start to the end in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) …
One can smother Grandrieux’s films with all the culture one brings to them: cinematic references (F.W. Murnau, Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Stan Brakhage), pictorial (Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, John Martin), literary-poetic (Georg Trakl, Adalbert Stifter) – including, naturally, his own previous works. Yes, the camera shakes, trembles, lingers long out-of-focus; yes, the darkness reigns; yes, dialogue is sparse and elemental (“You don’t know who I am” / “But I know what I want from you”); yes, the entirely constructed soundscape is again all-important, this incredible bed of aural sensations and layers. And there is indeed one, sole moment of cultural reference in the film itself: the breathtaking birth of music (in a film with, otherwise, no score), first as a voice, then (uncannily) with piano accompaniment, this performance of a Robert Schumann Liederkreis which comes out of nowhere and marks a very precise moment of transition in the film: “Your voice is not the same anymore”, says brother to sister. That passage alone sends Un lac (and me) to heaven.
But one has to resist this assimilation of Un lac to previously known or experienced co-ordinates. The film lives in the viewer to the extent that it offers, one after another, a series of first-time visions (and sounds). The gradual revealing of the family members is structured for just this impact and effect: suddenly, there is a mother, a stranger, a father … and don’t forget the horse, who is just as significant a character here. To really feel this movie is to be struck by all this virginity: the freshness of air, of skin (how made-up and artificial the skin in every other movie looks after this one!), of every posture and gesture … Grandrieux lines up a study of the human body, and in particular the body in a particular position: with the head up, the neck exposed, and the eyes open or closed, looking at trees, listening into the distance, feeling the falling snowflakes on one’s hair and face. That was the ambiguous pose at the end of La Vie Nouvelle, too, poised between angst and rebirth, contorted in a cosmic scream; but here, it’s a serene trance, the look of love.
On the closing night of this festival where I first encountered it, Un lac won awards for cinematography and innovation. I had the special thrill of reading out this speech sent by Philippe via SMS:
I thank the Grand Jury of the Las Palmas Film Festival for having awarded two prizes to Un lac. And I am happy they will be delivered into Adrian’s good hands. I am also very happy that these awards come from a country that I especially love. Light and innovation: what a beautiful definition of cinema, of its vitality and greatest energy. I am unable to attend the Festival, because my film is being released in France in a few days – but, despite the distance that sadly separates me from you this evening, I joyfully accept these prizes at the very same instant that you give them to me, because they are coming from Las Palmas to Paris carried at the speed of light: the light of cinema, which is the light that illuminates all our lives. Thank you once again,
© Adrian Martin March/April 2009